Player-driven campaigns and developing strong stories

Micah Sweet

Level Up & OSR Enthusiast
I use an episodic sandbox with an overarching threat. I guess Buffy the Vampire Slayer and to some extent Babylon 5 were my inspirations for this approach. The PCs can do what they want, but somewhere in the distance an active BBEG force is on the move. I will roll for its successes and failures, but generally slanted towards success, where other factions would be more random. So it might happen that offstage NPC good guys succeed in a desperate holding action to hold the mountain pass vs the BBEG army, but the chances are the BBEG is only slowed, not defeated. Eventually the PCs may rise to challenge the BBEG, and succeed or fail - one of my best ever campaigns was set in the aftermath of a previous campaign where the BBEG won. :)

Edit: I guess what I do somewhat resembles (edit) Dungeon World 'with its Fronts/Threats system and Progress Clocks', but more simulationist, I use a Free Kriegsspiel* type approach where I'll get in the heads of the NPC factions, determine their resources, goals & attempts/efforts, and where there's conflict I'll roll to resolve success, usually with a d6. I may not roll if success is certain, eg my Black Sun BBEG faction had a 'ringer' in the form of Kainos, Demigod Son of Ares-Bane. He was around CR 28, and when he went up against various level 8 or so NPC heroes, I didn't bother rolling.

*Derogatorily referred to as Mother May I by the uncouth. :D
Yeah, a sandbox with elements in each point of interest that can (but don't force) the PCs to others points of interest, with an overarching threat on the whole region, is a great campaign set up for me.
 

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andreszarta

Adventurer
I get that it feels good to say everyone in the game is equal. But just saying it does not make something in the game. The GM has to do a TON of hard work. The player just half pays attention and says whatever their character does occasionally.
Has this been your only experience with roleplaying games? Like, can you think of any time when it wasn't like this?

If that is the case, then I think the problem is that you have only played in games where the GM is the only person at the table who gets to decide what counts as a legal contribution to the fiction. If what a player says has to be always filtered by the GM, and they have the power to determine what does or doesn't stick, then OF COURSE the GM has to do a TON of hard work, and OF COURSE the player just half pays attention and says whatever their character does occasionally.

The GM has to do a TON of hard work because they are responsible for everything in the fiction, including deciding when or when not it's appropriate for assigning credibility to another player's contribution. What a nightmare of a job. Having too deal with so much social risk! Also, what a lonely task!

The player just half pays attention and says whatever their character does occasionally, because their creative involvement in the fiction is minimal. They are there to please someone else's fantasy. No wonder why they seem mildly distracted!

Clearly you are listing a bunch of dysfunctional arrangements that go beyond any specific gaming cultures. I wonder, do you have anything positive to say about successful and fulfilling roleplaying? Like if we assume that your premise is true, and that the only way to have the ultimate fun is by having the GM do a TON of hard work and the player just half pay attention and say whatever their character does occasionally...then please point me to what's fun in THAT because I can't see it.

Does the player put down in text or writing ANY time or effort? Sure the player can randomly make something up, BUT then the player passes ALL off to the GM to do all the work.
I'd point out the player "assigned" to do a task will do little or no work even close to that of a GM.

Also @bloodtide, throughout your posts it seems like you equate credibility and authority over the game's fiction with whoever puts the work to...what? Write it down? Make mechanics for it? What amount of "work" is "enough" to make something true in the fiction...and...like...why?
 
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pemerton

Legend
2. You could have something like classic old school D&D where PCs mostly operate from the limited perspective of their characters but where their real world creative solutions to the challenges posed by the GM have a significant impact on the game world.
Player: "Can I spread some of the troll's snot in my boots to make them super sticky and have and easier time climbing the wall?"
GM (whose agenda is to reward creativity): "Yes" or "lets roll for it"!

You might not have noticed, but the player in that example just invented fiction outside of his character's limited perspective, namely that troll's snot is a sticky enough substance to climb walls. This is a particular and very rewarding form of collaborative world building I'm almost sure you recognize. The GM has an open invitation to allow troll's snot to be a valuable substance in the world, or to allow players to collect it as an adventuring resource.

3. Believe it or not, Apocalypse World.

<snip>

Players in AW don't control anything but their characters, but within that control their characters they have tremendous power to determine the ways things go for them. Take a look at my driver's ability Eye on the door:

As a PC, I get the power to feint, and I easily get out of conflicts depending on what my priorities as a player. It is not a completely reliable currency. Sometimes I get out and that's it. Sometimes I'm forced to make a difficult choice to leave. Sometimes I fail and I have to get out like any other PC. I have not invented fiction outside of my player characters limited perspective. I haven't altered the universe in any way. I have acted in a diegetically logical way and the outcome follows logically from everything that has come before. But the macro-effect that my contribution has, the way my ideas are incorporated into the story, is that now the story has to accommodate to the fact that I am out of that conflict and cannot be brought back in. The focus on the story for my character shifts and I am now able to move on to something else or have to deal with something else and the rest of the table follows me onto my next conflict.

I, as my player character, without ever leaving the confines of their own perspective, without ever "breaking immersion", without ever considering or contemplating any notion related to things "story structure" or "the story we are writing together", have unequivocally, irrevocably said "Hey, everyone, I'm moving on to the next scene". If we are playing by the rules that should not seen as disruptive, but that is a feature of the game, just like old school's troll's snot.
Thanks for posting these examples.

I think there is a HUGE blind spot for this sort of thing in most ENworld discussions, which with metronomic regularity go Character immersion => No control over fiction outside my own character => near-total GM control over shared fiction.

My own favourite counter-examples, which I've posted often, are these:

*In every AD&D combat ever, a successful attack that kills the Orc makes it true in the fiction that the Orc didn't duck;

*In Burning Wheel, when I make a Circles check to see if my PC meets who they want to meet, I do not have to break my immersion within (or inhabitation of) my PCs hopes and expectations.
 

Has this been your only experience with roleplaying games? Like, can you think of any time when it wasn't like this?
No and yes.
Clearly you are listing a bunch of dysfunctional arrangements that go beyond any specific gaming cultures. I wonder, do you have anything positive to say about successful and fulfilling roleplaying? Like if we assume that your premise is true, and that the only way to have the ultimate fun is by having the GM do a TON of hard work and the player just half pay attention and say whatever their character does occasionally...then please point me to what's fun in THAT because I can't see it.
Yes. A lot.
Also @bloodtide, throughout your posts it seems like you equate credibility and authority over the game's fiction with whoever puts the work to...what? Write it down? Make mechanics for it? What amount of "work" is "enough" to make something true in the fiction...and...like...why?
Well, I'd say that each player must do equal to what the GM does.

So the game would be like: There are no Player Characters, just Game Characters. So, one less Game Character for the number of players. The Game Characters are then haned out randomly. The game starts when the player with no character makes their first Game Creation and puts on the "DM hat" to control the game and play out their creation. Then the next player that wants to makes their Game Creation, they give the Game Character they have to the player that does not have one, and takes the "DM hat" from that player.
 

Anon Adderlan

Explorer
Ultimately player driven campaigns rely on a group of players who are interested in meaningfully interacting with each other and a system which supports that. Otherwise you either have the whole group on mission, or nobody other than the lead protagonist participating in their own story. And even the RPGs designed with this in mind often implement rather primitive procedures to achieve these ends, so there's still plenty of innovation left in this space.

All I'm saying is that trying to find 5-6 players who all make characters that have mutually agreeable goals is tough. And when you have 6 characters, they need to be working on something that's mutually satisfying. It's not too bad to pursue one character's individual goals and find a reason for 2 other players to tag along. It's a lot harder to find reason for 5 other tag alongs. You can do it if they're a friend group or a crew or something like that, but that was the point I made of the characters need to be built to have mutually reinforcing stories.
Which is why group character creation and session zero is so important.

I don't want to name names here, because I don't know who is reading, but there are some quite famous GMs in the OSR community and the Nar community who are obviously not running the game they think they are running.
As a game designer this is a particular pet peeve of mine. Hell it's the reason The Forge was created in the first place.

And you can have a group with intraparty conflict that works, but because most players are playing self-inserts and can't play anything else, then it's really rare to have a group of players that can have intraparty conflict that is fun and not frustrating and inevitably going to turn to real world table conflicts. And this is especially true because in most healthy groups, the guy wanting to introduce intraparty conflict is not the most emotionally healthy, talented, and mature player at the table. Again, I've seen it work, but the trust level has to be really high and the players can't actually be driven by competition as an aesthetic.
This is why #Monsterhearts explicitly tells you to treat characters like stolen cars, as a degree of separation is absolutely needed for this sort of thing. And I disagree with the last point as #Paranoia very much follows that aesthetic.

No, it's a very surprising and controversial statement. I mean, one of the huge take aways of Forge was "system matters". I'm suggesting that system matters less than some other things.
That's only because you differentiate between system and all the other procedures at the table.

the rain about her turns into copper coins, reflecting her deep desire for wealth; and Alicia faints from the tax
Not surprising, as the IRS hates when you create wealth out of nowhere.
 


Ultimately player driven campaigns rely on a group of players who are interested in meaningfully interacting with each other and a system which supports that. Otherwise you either have the whole group on mission, or nobody other than the lead protagonist participating in their own story. And even the RPGs designed with this in mind often implement rather primitive procedures to achieve these ends, so there's still plenty of innovation left in this space
Existing games like BitD and DW don't, IME, fall prey to this to any great degree. Certainly trad/classic/OSR is just as vulnerable. Like sure, a DW GM could constantly focus all their moves on one PC. This is a pretty obvious form of crappy GMing though!

I mean, OK, some literally procedural/mechanical focus distribution is fine. Personally I don't feel a strong need.
 

Celebrim

Legend
That's only because you differentiate between system and all the other procedures at the table.

Fair enough. I'm aware that the technical definition of "the system" encompasses basically everything at the table, but so much of that is very difficult to implement with rules or directives. There is a big question as to whether in practice you the game designer have much control over the broader definition of "system", whereas you do have some control over the games mechanics. Is it really enough to tell the players you want them to treat the PC's like stolen cars? Or do you perhaps need to actually incentivize that in some way?
 

Fair enough. I'm aware that the technical definition of "the system" encompasses basically everything at the table, but so much of that is very difficult to implement with rules or directives. There is a big question as to whether in practice you the game designer have much control over the broader definition of "system", whereas you do have some control over the games mechanics. Is it really enough to tell the players you want them to treat the PC's like stolen cars? Or do you perhaps need to actually incentivize that in some way?
It's a good question. Incentives are usually a good thing but maybe not always needed. Sometimes tone is enough. Sometimes the process of play is strong enough to carry the game to the intended place, like with Apocalypse World.
 

Yora

Legend
Incentives that make the things that the genre of the game is supposed to be about mechanically advantageous are one of the big blind spots in the field of game design. That should be the primary focus of the whole body of game mechanics for each game. Everything else is secondary.
 

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